Saturday, February 20, 2016

An English Love Story

If you go back to the very beginning, all of this is my parents' fault.

It was Dad who asked me if I'd ever considered studying abroad. "," I replied. "I mean, sure, I'd LOVE to, but it's expensive."

"We think it would be a great opportunity," Dad said. "It's up to you. If you want to do it, set it up, and we'll pay for it."

"There's a London Semester Program through the school of Humanities and Fine Arts...maybe I could do that some time."

"Like I said, if you want to do it, set it up and I'll write the check."

It was September 1998 and I was a happy, thriving music ed major at CSU Chico. I had moved into a new apartment the month before, with two dear friends, and two other friends were always hanging around, so it was always busy and full of laughter.

Until it wasn't--for me, anyway. While all of that college drama is water under the bridge, at the time, it was traumatic, losing four friends completely and suddenly, all because one of them decide to make me the enemy. It was all so very stupid, but of course, at the time it was the Most Terrible Thing Ever. And it plunged me into a pit of anxiety and stress.

In all of this, I applied for--and was accepted to--the Spring London Semester group. Forty-three Chico students would go to London with two Chico professors for four months of studying, sight-seeing, and life experience. At the darkest moments that fall term, I had one big light at the end of the tunnel: a city far away that I'd never seen, that sounded so incredible.

Then I was there, and the hurt and drama of the past few months washed away in the muddy waters of the Thames, leaving me a different person--more grown-up.

I wandered the twisty streets of London and learned the Tube system. I survived without my parents and made new friends--but the most important thing I learned that semester was how to be happy in my own company. Maybe "happy" is too simplistic. More, I learned to be content in my own company.

I've said it many times in the years since--the Meg who left for London in January 1999 and the Meg who returned that May are two different people. The changes were for the better. Being an international traveler and student gave me a better world view...and awakened in me the desire to return to that city that had sparked these changes.

It took about five years, but I returned to England--this time to teach. I didn't live in London, but rather in a small Essex town called Burnham-on-Crouch. How I adored dear Burnham, but I'm not going to lie--the school was a very stressful place to work. Once or twice a month, I ventured into London on the weekends, to shop, see a show, look around. I was less a tourist there and more just an "honorary Brit" enjoying a weekend in the city. But those adventures kept me sane when the stress from my job, and my ever-present anxiety, had me reeling.

That year, of course, is documented here. I started this whole blog to write about my adventures (always wild, always absolutely true), and I've just kept on going with it, even as my accidentally-acquired British accent and my tendency to use Britishisms faded back to my All-American, California Girl accent.

It broke my heart to leave. I wanted, so badly, to try a second year, but I also knew that that second year might very well be more than I could handle. Meg then had some growing up yet to do. Meg now might have handled things differently...but that's not who I was. So I came back to the United States.

Life has been good--I've moved around some, I've lost jobs and weight and gained maturity and perspective and so much more. I always intended to get back to England as soon as possible, and then a year went by. Two years. Three. Five. A whole decade.

Travel is expensive. I was unemployed for a while. Life just...happens.

Still, I loved London, and England, and the people there. I just couldn't quite get back to them.

Until this week, and oh, what a week it was. I have cried more this week than I cry about anything anymore, but mostly tears of joy, or the cathartic tears that come when you are finally able to see a place again, and the people there who love you, and realize that no matter how far away you go, you are still so very lucky to have a home there.

I'm drawn to water--the wild crashing Pacific Ocean, and the rivers of "my" England--the Thames of London and the Crouch in Essex. In my Burnham days, when I was most stressed, I would wander a mile or so down to the river, and walk along the quay. The river, at Burnham, is salt water, and boats bobbed along the banks and in the marina. I can't tell you how many miles I logged along that river, stamping out my anxieties. On Tuesday, I walked down there again, and cried to remember the stressed-out girl I was, and cried some more with joy at the woman I am now.

Yesterday, my last morning in London--for now--I wandered around Kensington Gardens, watching Londoners go for a morning run, or walk their dogs, or cut across the park to get to work. I heard the distant traffic sounds and watched the winter sun hit the surrounding buildings and whispered to the waking city: "I'll never not love you..."

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